LEON THEREMIN Biography - Pioneers, Explorers & inventors


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Born: 15 August 1896                                                                         
Died: 3 November 1993                                                                       
Birthplace: St. Petersburg, Russia                                                           
Best known as: Inventor of the electronic musical instrument                                 
The Birth of the Theremin                                                                   
In the years previous to 1920, a young student, Lev Sergeivitch Termen (a name               
which was thereafter gallicized to Léon Théremin), built an electronic musical               
instrument in St. Petersburg. It was a Thermionic tubed instrument. Théremin was             
not only a technician, but also a professional musician. He had studied physics             
at the University of St. Petersburg, studying courses of music theory and cello             
at the Musical Institute at the same time. In 1919, he had been nominated as                 
Director of the Technical Laboratory (vibration research) at the Physics and                 
Technical Institute. During a conference of Electrotecnicians in 1920, he                   
presented the Termenvoksa or Heterophone, or Theremin, as it was called                     
internationally. Those at the conference saw a small box with two antennae, one             
on the right and one on the left. Could it be a new type of telegraph? Or an                 
electronic measuring device? Théremin moved to the front of the machine and                 
began working it. There were no handles or keyboard. He waved his hands above               
the instrument like an orchestra conductor and seemed to obtain sounds as if by             
How the Theremin Works                                                                       
A small metal rod protrudes from the top of the music stand, from which there is             
another metal coil located on the side. On the music stand itself, which is                 
connected to the power supply for illumination, rests the music score. The                   
conductor moves near and, having set off a switch, begins to wave his arms, as               
if conducting. Immediately, sounds begin flowing out from a speaker pointed in               
the direction of the audience. I certainly hope that the reader doesn?t think,               
not even for a minute, that I would let a merely far-flung idea flow out from my             
pen. It?s actually the invention, realized very practically, of a Russian                   
technician, Leon Theremin, who lives in America, where he has already given many             
demonstrations. A large American producer of records and radio receivers has put             
the new musical instrument out on the market ever since 1930. The instrument,               
the ?Thereminvox,? has no keyboard, no strings, no horns, and no other devices               
which would resemble a normal musical instrument. With one?s hand close to the               
metal rod - the vertical antenna - you hear a sound which becomes ever lower as             
the hand is moved away, while it becomes increasingly acute as the hand is                   
brought closer. Removing the hand completely from the presence of the antenna,               
the sound ceases completely. It?s never necessary to touch the antenna. The coil             
located horizontally on the left side of the machine - the horizontal antenna -             
serves only for modifying the intensity of the sound produced. Lowering the hand             
on the coil, the power, and therefore the volume, decreases. So, the right hand             
regulates the pitch while the left hand regulates the intensity. With radio                 
receivers, in use for several years now, moving one?s hand close to the tuning               
dial you are able to notice a kind of howling that ceases as soon as the hand is             
taken away. This phenomenon was then suppressed with the use of screens, made               
with metallic divisions between the various parts. Ever since that time,                     
Theremin thought about utilizing this phenomenon to create a new musical                     
instrument, which is precisely what he did. The operating principle is as                   
follows: the device produces two oscillations at an inaudible frequency by means             
of two circuits oscillating at high frequencies. By moving one?s hands close to             
the two antennae, the vertical one and the horizontal one, a connection between             
the two circuits is produced. The overlapping of the two inaudible oscillations             
creates a ?beating,? that is, further oscillations which are audible, whose                 
pitch varies with the movement of the hands. The sounds produced with this                   
system have some of the characteristics of a cello.